Let's face it. The reputation of Irish cuisine pales mightily when compared to that of Italy, or even Germany. I expected to have plenty to eat, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I truly enjoyed the dishes I ate during our 10-day visit.
Here are some memorable highlights.
Potatoes and Ireland are practically synonymous. By the 1840's, potatoes accounted for 80% of the daily calories consumed by the average person, especially the average, rural, low-income person, in the country. It was estimated that 8 pounds of hearty, nutritious, calorie-rich potatoes a day were eaten by each man, woman, or child. Then, in 1845, a blight or fungus hit the potato crop, and from then until 1852, the Great Potato Famine -- also called The Big Hunger -- occurred and took a devastating toll on the country. In 1844, the year before the famine, Ireland's population was 8.4 million. Almost a million died of starvation, another million immigrated to other countries, and by 1851, the count was 6.6 million and still dropping. As of April 2021, the population is 5.01 million, meaning that it has yet to recover population-wise from that terrible event.
The sad thing is that even though the potato crop was wiped out during those years, there was actually plenty to eat in Ireland. But, because of politics and exportation agreements, livestock, butter, peas, beans, rabbits, fish, and honey were being sent elsewhere rather than being used to feed the Irish people. (Full disclosure: Some of my numbers may be off here and there, but this is the story I heard. Feel free to do your own digging for more details).
Potatoes are back in full force today and are eagerly consumed at every meal. A potato pancake (called a boxty) or fried potatoes are often found at breakfast. Mashed potatoes accompany almost every meat or stew with extra helpings on the side. And, of course, the "chips" part of fish and chips consists of hearty chunks of fried potatoes that remind us of big, fluffy French fries. (Although, the Irish call OUR French fries "crisps.")
Ireland is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Celtic Sea, and the Irish Sea, so the constant presence of fish on menus is natural. Steve enjoyed salmon in every form possible. I loved the battered cod and the trout. It was all fresh and very flavorful.
Note: If you must have Heinz catsup, you'd better stick some in your suitcase to take with you. :)
I am practically addicted to sweet, iced tea, but I have learned that in the right setting, a cup of hot tea really hits the spot. Irish restaurants offer coffee to American tourists, but tea is what they prefer for themselves. So many teapots and pretty teacups. My hunch is that every self-respecting housewife has her own special collection, possibly handed down from past generations.
I like my hot tea with a splash of fresh cream and a spoonful (or two) of brown sugar. Really good.
If I have a choice between a biscuit and a scone, I'll likely choose the biscuit. But when I want to "live like the locals," I'm certainly willing to eat a scone. They are especially good when they are fresh out of the oven, and most have bits of raisins or fruit. I can see why they go so well with hot tea.
FULL IRISH BREAKFAST
We were offered a "full Irish breakfast" every morning we were in Ireland, and it is indeed a complete meal that gets you ready to face a busy day.
The bacon reminded me of country ham but not as salty. White and black pudding are types of sausage, with the black pudding often called "blood pudding." In spite of the name, I tried it and liked it. It's a good bit spicier than white (non-bloody) pudding.
Eggs (both scrambled and fried) were on every breakfast buffet, along with pastries, plump link sausages, yogurt, fruit, fried potatoes, and PORK AND BEANS. Yep. You don't see any on this plate, but I did actually have them for breakfast several mornings.
Irish soda bread comes in light and dark varieties and is dense and chewy.
SOUPS AND STEWS
Traditional Irish stew is thick and rich with tender chunks of beef and vegetables. The cows we saw in the pastures (and the sheep, too, of course) looked plump and well-fed, and we found the meat to be very tender.
Several soups we had were pureed, so it was hard to tell what the exact ingredients were, but I know one kind was Colcannon which is a mixture of potatoes, cabbage, leeks, and bacon. It was good.
As is true of everywhere except the Deep South, I suspect, desserts in Ireland are not very sweet. The butters and creams, however, are wonderful, so ice cream is exceptional -- especially Murphy's Ice Cream, which is made locally in Dingle.
When we visited Kylemore Abbey, we sampled their "legendary apple pie," and it was fantastic. The vanilla custard served with it put it over the top. Oh my.
So, the moral of the story here is that you don't need to fear not liking the food in Ireland. There are a few oddities -- which is what makes visiting other countries so interesting to me -- but it was all delicious and well-prepared. Two thumbs up.